Helen, Shakespeare's Globe, London

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The Independent Culture

In a witty piece of programming, Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole follows a revival of Troilus and Cressida – in which the Greeks have all but forgotten why they went to war with Troy – with the satire by Euripides that suggests Helen was never abducted by Paris in the first place.

For the divine Helen here is not Helen of Troy but Helen of Egypt, sunning herself on a funereal earth mound – a do-it-yourself pyramid of lava with freshly dug tombs and golden nicknacks, while fending off the advances of the local king Theoclymenes.

In a performance of great style and brio, Penny Downie sarcastically confronts first a wandering Greek hero, Teucer (Andrew Vincent), and then her own shipwrecked husband, Menelaus (Paul McGann), with the myth of her own legend: "I am dirt, I caused the Trojan war." The face that launched a thousand quips is the real deal while the other one was a phantom.

Helen explains the background to the plot herself: her ghost was given to Paris by a scorned goddess in a beauty contest and, hidden by Hermes on a cloud of vapours, she landed in Egypt to await her husband. When he turns up, he too is stripped of his identity in a bid to make an escape from the clutches of the rampant monarch in one of his boats; that old sea-bed trick.

It's a comedy and a farce, and Deborah Bruce's smart production rattles along for 90 minutes, making excellent use of a raggle-taggle chorus, the music of Claire van Kampen and a falsetto singer in a white tuxedo, William Purefoy, as a sort of backing group to Helen's spirited cavorting. Even the dying, mutilated messenger of Ukweli Roach is funny, and the transport of delight becomes just that as Helen and Menelaus head for the harbour and Theoclymenes (Rawiri Paratene) accepts the ruling of the Greek gods.

The new text by Frank McGuinness – using a literal translation by Fionnuala Murphy - is sharp and staccato, with a real muscular vitality, and McGuinness doesn't labour any modern parallels beyond referring to the Trojan war as the troubles.

Gideon Davey's design cleverly incorporates the Globe's two awkward pillars by cladding one in the gold leaf of the palace and using the other as a buttress to the embryonic pyramid. Egyptian iconography is wittily strewn about the stage, and on the king's head, Helen's name spelt backwards in huge white lettering either side of an entrance of silver streamers.

Downie, dressed in a golden sheath with a great mop of tangled ginger hair, combines gravitas and levity in her quick, angular movement and splendidly coloured vocalisation. She sets the right Euripidean tone by playing askance to the absurdity of her own situation. This play was a revelation in the RSC's great Greek cycle in 1980, but the Globe fully restores its imperishable brilliance and surprise novelty value.

To 23 August (020-7401 9919; www.shakespeares-globe.org)

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